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Fusion Energy Program Heats Up

With crude oil prices at record highs and growing concerns over future energy supplies, the Jacobs School’s Center for Energy Research is making key contributions needed to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power. UCSD researchers are studying two competing technologies to create the conditions needed for hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium atoms, with the release of energy.

Jacobs School research scientist Rick Moyer and post-doctoral scholar Ilon Joseph, working with colleagues at General Atomics, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories, reported a surprising new finding relating to magnetic-confinement fusion in the June 2006 issue of Nature Physics. They found that perturbing the magnetic fields containing the plasma prevented the formation of dangerous instabilities that sometimes damage reactors’ containment walls. “It’s as if a dash of chaos actually helps a fusion reactor,” says Moyer.

Rendering of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) machine.
Rendering of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) machine.

The new results, discovered on the DIII-D Tokamak reactor at nearby General Atomics, will be evaluated for incorporation into the design of ITER, a $6 billion experiment that will demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power. ITER will be built at Cadarache in the South of France by the European Union, Japan, China, India, South Korea, the Russian Federation, and the U.S.

Moyer’s work is part of the Center for Energy Research’s fusion energy research program, a research effort involving 20 Ph.D candidates, more than 25 research scientists and technicians, and four professors: Farhat Beg (MAE), Sergei Krasheninnikov (MAE), Farrokh Najmabadi (ECE), and George Tynan (MAE).The center’s PISCES (Plasma Interaction with Surfaces and Components Experimental Simulator) program studies the physics of plasma-material interactions which occur when hot plasma contacts the walls of fusion devices.

UCSD researchers are also involved in developing inertial confinement fusion, a technology that involves lasers rather than magnetic fields to compress and heat hydrogen fuel to fusion conditions. UCSD has the largest research team of any U.S. university collaborating in the High Average Power Laser Program, a national effort to develop the science and technology for inertial confinement fusion.

UCSD also manages ARIES (Advanced Reactor Innovation and Evaluation Study), a team of scientists from national laboratories, universities, and industry that evaluates conceptual designs of future fusion reactors and helps guide the direction and priorities of future fusion research worldwide.